“We can’t arrest our way out of the problem”
By Joseph D. Early Jr.
Worcester County District Attorney
Published in the Sentinel & Enterprise and the Lowell Sun on Sept. 16, 2016
The opioid epidemic has affected virtually everyone in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Worcester County is no different.
Law enforcement has a role to play in addressing the crisis, but we know we can’t arrest our way out of the problem.
In the district attorney’s office and with members of the Worcester County Opioid Overdose Prevention Task Force we are using compassion to help change attitudes. Not long ago, people addicted to painkillers or heroin were referred to as junkies, drug addicts, losers or worse. This disease is not a moral failing. These people are suffering from a chronic illness, and they should be treated the way we treat others who are sick.
Those afflicted with addiction should be called what they really are — son, daughter, brother, sister, mother, father. Showing compassion to these individuals will remove the stigma associated with drug addiction. It will open the doors to treatment.
We are educating people about how opioids work, about the connection between prescription painkillers and heroin, especially since pain became the fifth vital sign and opened the door for widespread distribution of opioid prescriptions.
My office sponsored a SCOPE of Pain training last year for doctors and other health professionals about safe prescribing practices. Medical students in the past did not receive much pain management and opioid prescription training.
Now the University of Massachusetts is becoming the first medical school in the country to add this training to its curriculum.
We’ve raised awareness about safeguarding prescription painkillers and properly disposing of unused pills. Drop boxes, places to bring unused or unwanted prescription medication, have popped up all over the county, mostly in police stations. This is a safe and secure way to dispose of unused drugs. Any community that is interested in getting a drop box should contact the district attorney’s office.
Narcan is a miracle drug, a medication that can immediately stop the effects of an opioid overdose. When we launched the Worcester County Opioid Task Force early last year, we advocated for the increased use of Narcan and have provided trainings for its proper use.
Now, Narcan is available almost countywide. The District Attorney’s Office has grant money that is used to reimburse communities for the cost of Narcan. Hundreds of overdoses have been reversed because first responders were armed with Narcan. Hundreds of lives are being saved.
The DA’s office, the Fitchburg Police, AdCare Hospital and UMass Memorial Health Alliance Hospital are running a pilot program with a state grant that gives people who have overdosed a chance to get treatment for their addiction. If a person overdoses and is given Narcan by the Fitchburg Police, a substance abuse counselor from AdCare offers them treatment and a bed if they are ready to try and quit using drugs. The family of the overdose victim is also involved in the intervention.
The theory behind the program is to catch the person at the point where they almost died because of the overdose and try to get them into treatment. If successful, this pilot program will be replicated in other communities.
My office has also used grant money for billboards around the county to call attention to the Good Samaritan Law. The law was passed several years ago. It allows people who are with someone who is overdosing on drugs to call 911 without fear of being arrested on a minor drug charge.
We found that 60 to 70 percent of overdose victims died because the person they were using drugs with did not call 911. The billboard campaign is helping get the word out that you can help save a life without fear of arrest. Don’t run, call 911.
In addition to the state grant for the Fitchburg program, our office and the Opioid Task Force are in the first year of a two-year federal Harold Rogers grant to fight the opioid epidemic in Worcester County by compiling relevant and useful data.
We are grateful for the help of the state and the federal government. We know that stopping addiction and reducing the number of overdose deaths will take all of us working together.